Friday, April 6, 2007

Judge On, If Ye Be Judged

If Free Speech Friday is no longer an appropriate day for laying judgment upon the hypocrisies, cruelties, and failures of a society – anyone’s society – then we’re in for a rather bland opinion sheet 30-odd times a year, aren’t we? It’s ironic that Brooke McKean’s editorial on multicultural propriety should be printed on Good Friday, the supposed pseudo-anniversary of the day that a supposed carpenter/prophet from Nazareth was supposedly tortured and executed by a supposed viceroy of the Roman Empire for no crime save that of thought and speech – and, yes, judgment of a corrupt and tyrannical social order.

McKean is one of the wiser commentators, and certainly one of the better writers, that the Daily features in its Opinion section. Something tells me that length and content constraints are partially responsible for the unsettling verdict that she arrives at, namely that she doesn’t believe she has any right to judge the appalling misogyny of the conservative subcultures of North Africa and the Pashtun regions of Central Asia. Au contraire, she does.

“As a woman who believes in equal rights across genders,” she grits her teeth at the exchange of young girls as chattel and the practice of clitoral mutilation, but remains “internally conflicted”:

Do I have a right…to impose my Western standards on another culture? I think not. Although I am strongly opposed to these practices, I don’t believe any Western influence could change the situation.

I’m confused by this paragraph. If she accepts the fundamental principle of equality between genders, mustn’t she also accept that that principle transcends the place where one was born and the culture in which one was raised? Does she believe this is a “Western” standard merely because it’s practiced in the “West”? The principle of gender equality is either universal or idiosyncratic; if it’s idiosyncratic, as she suggests, on what basis is she “strongly opposed” to the abuse of women in these cultures?

Gender equality is, of course, a universal truth, and one that has taken the “West” far too long to discover and which we have been far too slow to institutionalize. Consider this assertion:

Undoubtedly, our culture is diametrically opposed to the Pashtuns’, but there exists a structure in every culture, and to force it to change is to threaten the society itself.

I respect McKean’s regard for cultures that are distant and vulnerable and difficult to understand. However, I take exception to the assumption that culture has the power to constitutionally alter the nature and essential dignity of a human being, such that she may be treated as any less worthy a creature than her father, brother, or husband. The cultural “structure” that says she is less worthy – that she may be traded or mutilated or worse – is grounded in tradition (usually, I might add, a traditional interpretation of revelation), but tradition is not its own justification. It must defend its claims to legitimacy by responding to criticism of its ideas and practices, if only so that we know precisely why traditionalists believe what they believe.

If Brooke McKean feels the urge, as I suspect she does, to denounce involuntary clitoral circumcision as irredeemably cruel and utterly ridiculous, she has that right – and, I would say, that responsibility. By the same token, if the Pashtun believe American consumerism is spiritually shallow and exploitative, or that western feminism is blasphemous and hypocritical, they too have the right to say so and we who believe in such things have the responsibility to defend them.

There’s a concrete component to McKean’s article that is relevant to the U.S. government’s Afghanistan policy. Her basis for opposing the “imposition” of western values, presumably through the barely-functioning Karzai government in Kabul, is unclear. Its seems partially a matter of practicality; after all, she says, the Pashtun have a history of defending their “honor” against outsiders, and indeed there’s a great deal of merit in the contention that trying to transform the entire value system of Afghanistan is a massive exercise in futility. Fair enough, but the crux of her argument is her principled stand against cross-cultural critique. Yes, her “cultural preconditions register certain activities as wrong” – culture, because it’s inculcated in youth, is exclusive in nature.

But she also possesses the faculty of reason, which is common to all human beings regardless of location or values, and which, importantly, must always guide the selective preservation of traditional practices and interpretation of holy books. This is the common denominator that permits us, for instance, to determine that gender is an arbitrary distinction when we’re talking about rights.

You do have the right to judge, Ms. McKean. Shout it from the rooftops.

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